Like Leaves: Alice Oswald’s Memorial


Memorial by Alice Oswald. Faber and Faber Ltd. 96 pp. £ 12.99 Hardback


This is an Iliad for our time, brilliantly updated by the sheer freshness of the writing, the simplification of situations to their timeless essentials, and constant subtle flashes of anachronism. But not “for our time” in any limiting sense. Oswald couldn’t be farther from the kind of cheap topicality that seems alive in the moment of writing and then dates as fast as newspapers go yellow. I think her poem will go on being contemporary and fresh for a long time to come.

Fundamentally she’s transformed epic into lyric, ditching most of the narrative and with that most of the elements that anchor the poem to a particular culture, period and story. She’s kept the names and highly concentrated biographical sketches of the individual soldiers, all caught in the moment of death, and has intercut them with a series of distilled epic similes. These similes are generally drawn from the enduring world of nature, omitting most of the culturally specific ones drawn from human society.

The extreme beauty, clarity and in a sense simplicity of the writing makes it reach directly into the heart. Almost any quotation would make the point:


And KOIRANUS who came from the bright chalk cliffs
Of Crete he was a quiet man
A light to his loved ones


I’m not sure that poetry can be great without being in some ways simple, but of course the simplicity of a great poem is never really as simple as it may seem. Even in this tiny fragment it’s easy to see the subtlety of placing by which “of Crete” is separated from the broad sweep of the first line, so preserving the concentrated intensity of the image of the bright chalk cliffs, or how the delicate hesitancy of rhythm in the second and third lines contributes to their peculiar combination of modesty and radiance.

Focusing on the emotion that arises from events and situations rather than on the events and situations themselves, lyric inherently leaps across temporal and cultural boundaries. Such leaping is very much to Oswald’s purpose. Take this devastating simile:


Like smoke leaving the earth vanishing up
When a town is under attack on a faraway island
All day in a trance of war men murder each other
But at dusk silence only the fingers of fires
Lifting their question to the mainland
Is there anybody there please help


Such an attack on an island town may be rooted in the Homeric world but it resonates with the peculiar horror of any localised war where people suffer and die knowing that ordinary life is going on just out of their reach but has become irrelevant to them – say the horror of what is happening in Syria even now.

Or take the description of Hector’s visit to Andromache, inset into the description of his death:


He who was so boastful and anxious
And used to nip home deafened by weapons
To stand in full armour in the doorway
Like a man rushing in leaving his motorbike running


“Deafened by weapons” brings together the clatter of Bronze Age swords ringing on helmets and the thunder of modern artillery. But this Hector doesn’t just resonate with all warriors, he’s made to seem like any workman nipping home in his tea or lunch break, torn between home and the pressures of the job, caught in the iron grip of Necessity. The famous passage in Book 6 of the Iliad in which he talks about how he knows that he will die, Troy will fall and Andromache will be enslaved is distilled into four short lines of inarticulate realisation followed by the heartbreaking “He blinked and went back to his work”. This is Hector deglamourised, seen not as the prince, the guardian of the city, a man of almost superhuman gifts, but as any struggling husband looked at with loving, anxious exasperation by his wife.

One of the ways in which this is an Iliad for our times is that it is radically democratic. Some of the dead Oswald commemorates are kings or princes. Others are minor figures, like Koiranus or the Leukus of whom she writes “Little is known of him except his death”. What is subversive about this book is the way all of them are presented as just ordinary people who happen to be caught up in a war. Some are thrilled by it, others reluctant. Almost all seem like amateurs and all are out of their depth (after all, this book is about the killed). Hector becomes a tired mechanic. A lovely passage makes the Lycian leader, Sarpedon, so brilliantly savage in Christopher Logue’s Patrocleia, into a pastoral figure, a kind of Bronze Age Giles Winterbourne. When Oswald writes “POLYDORUS is dead who loved running / Now somebody has to tell his father / That exhausted man leaning on the wall / Looking for his favourite son”, a prince, King Priam’s youngest son, becomes any eager, athletic, life-loving boy and Priam becomes  any broken and bereaved old man.

Though everything I’ve said seems to me to be true, I’m afraid that my emphasis on grief and death may have given a cumulatively misleading impression. The paradox of Memorial is that although riddled with sorrow it’s anything but depressing. In her introduction Oswald talks about trying to retrieve the “enargeia” or “bright, unbearable reality” of Homer. She has succeeded triumphantly. Everywhere, shining through grief at the loss of so many irreplaceably individual lives, the beauty of her writing communicates an extraordinarily intense sense of what a marvellous gift life is as long as it lasts.

I wrote this review for Acumen 72 and would like to thank the editor for allowing me to post it here.


Leave a Reply